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Built to Last

by Richard Brookhiser

The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735–1817, by Myron Magnet (Norton, 481 pp., $35)

Has the Founders’ revival peaked? The big bios of the big names, now in big paperback editions, still sit on bookstore shelves, like Pleistocene megafauna, yet the subject stimulates feelings of both satiety and constriction. We have read a lot about the most famous Founders — the first four presidents (Washington to Madison) plus the two others who made it into our wallets (Hamilton, Franklin). The rest, however, struggle in their backwash; although there have been good recent books about Sam Adams, John Dickinson, Nathanael Greene, and others, they never seem to make 18th-Century Page Six.

Myron Magnet has found a delightful way out of this cul-de-sac. The Founders at Home is subtitled “The Building of America, 1735–1817.” “Building” is a pun: All the men he writes about left homes that, centuries later, are still intact and visitable. But, by a shrewd selection of subjects, Magnet also covers the construction of a country, from first thoughts to finishing touches — from the Zenger trial to the Battle of New Orleans. His cast of characters allows him to erase the dichotomy between overexposure and obscurity. The heavyweights are well represented: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison. But joining them are Founders most of us have barely or never heard of: William Livingston, the Lees of Stratford Hall, sober John Jay. The Founders at Home gives the pleasures of biography, while putting us back in the texture and complexity of a world.

Begin with the little-knowns. William Livingston, born in 1723, was a sprig of a wealthy Colonial New York clan. The Livingstons jockeyed for position in the elected assembly while baiting Crown-appointed governors. Much of their tussling was conducted in print: The Livingstons backed John Peter Zenger, the printer whose 1735 acquittal on a charge of seditious libel would unshackle Colonial American newspapers. In 1752, young William Livingston, a successful lawyer, launched a journal of his own, The Independent Reflector, to comment on a proposal to found a taxpayer-supported Anglican college in New York City. New York was religiously diverse even then, with all sorts of Protestants and a handful of Jews. Livingston hated the scheme. A “tax ought to be considered as the voluntary Gift of the People,” he wrote. “The civil Power hath no Jurisdiction over the Sentiments or Opinions of the Subject, till such Opinions break out into Actions prejudicial to the Community.” The college — King’s College, now Columbia — got founded, but Livingston had injected a dose of applied Locke into the American bloodstream.

The Lees were a brood of proud, eccentric gentry reared at Stratford Hall, 70 miles down the Potomac from Alexandria. In the musical about the Continental Congress, 1776, Richard Henry Lee is depicted as a genial boob, Jethro Bodine with manners. Magnet gives us the real deal. R.H., as he was known to his family, was hunting swans one winter day in 1768 “when his gun blew up, blowing the four fingers off his left hand. Ever after, he wore a specially made black silk glove to cover his disfigurement.” But it made him so cool. “In time, he practiced gesturing dramatically with it, which, with his Roman nose, high forehead, tall, gaunt frame, [and] aristocratic bearing . . . added to his command as an orator.” R.H.’s great gesture was to move, in June 1776, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

R.H.’s younger brother Arthur, studying medicine and law in Britain, became a friend of James Boswell and John Wilkes and a propagandist for the American cause, then moved on to diplomacy in Paris, where he annoyed Benjamin Franklin by complaining that the American mission there had been penetrated by spies (he was right). The brothers had a cousin, Henry, one of Washington’s dashing cavalry officers. In peacetime he made up for the thrill of battle with an orgy of land speculation that sent him to debtor’s prison. (His son, Robert E., would become famous in a later war.)

Stratford Hall, as befits such a family, looks odd. Its lines strike me as rather East German, as if it were a factory for making surveillance equipment. But the bricks of which it is built give it a warm, rich glow.

Of the prima donnas in The Founders at Home, perhaps the two most striking are Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, in part because of their homes. Magnet is a partisan: He admires the young colonel from St. Croix, and he seems rather suspicious of Mr. Jefferson. But when their houses face off, Monticello wins — though it is a near-run thing.

Hamilton, whom Magnet calls “the upwardly mobile young immigrant of dubious parentage,” sought security as well as fame in his adopted country. After retiring from his post as the United States’ first Treasury secretary, he felt his private career as a lawyer had prospered enough to allow him to build a summer house, which he called the Grange, on the northern heights of Manhattan (then countryside). Hamilton enjoyed it for only a few years before dying in his duel with Aaron Burr. As the land was developed, the Grange was moved, and it sat for over a century wedged between a church and an apartment building. In 2008, the National Park Service moved it to a nearby park, restoring its original colors and mirrored doors: “A perfect embodiment,” writes Magnet, “of his elegant, logical, complicated Enlightenment mind.”

The premier Enlightenment house of the Founding, though, has to be Monticello. It “seems to be saying,” Magnet writes, “as Goethe supposedly cried on his deathbed, More light! It’s not just that there are few dark corners in a house made up of so many demi-octagons, but that Jefferson has designed it so that light pours in from everywhere — through oversized, triple-hung windows and lots of them, through glass doors, through multiple skylights made up of glass louvers . . . all reflected and bounced back across the lofty rooms by mirrors everywhere.”

But even Monticello has its darkness. Two wings connect the main house to flanking pavilions; but the wings “are in fact covered passages that lead out of the cellar of the house and contain the semi-subterranean kitchen, dairy, and other rooms for those who waited on Jefferson. Since those latter were slaves, it’s hard not to [think] of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, with its airy, playful creatures of light enjoying the surface of the earth, while the dark Morlocks toil hidden.”

Magnet rubs Jefferson’s nose in this, but ends, as he must, by giving him his due, for it was to Jefferson that Lincoln would turn to explain what the Civil War was about. Writes Magnet: “The abstraction, not the history, was at that moment our true national identity. And in the ever-growing consciousness of man’s freedom that is the true meaning of history . . . so it became.”

Perhaps the best of Magnet’s portraits is that of his man in the middle, John Jay. There he is, on the cover of your college paperback of The Federalist Papers. Yet when you open it, as you surely do, you notice that he wrote only five of the 85 essays (he fell sick early on, then was knocked unconscious in a New York City riot). You may remember that he negotiated a treaty that bears his name, and for which half the country execrated him. What does this man have to offer us?

A lot that needed doing and that was not pretty. Jay’s hardest service came during the Revolution. Son of a family of New York Huguenot merchants, he ran the ominously named Committee for Detecting Conspiracies. New York was split between patriots and loyalists, and each side had guerrilla enforcers (Skinners and Cow-boys, respectively). “Punishments must of course become certain,” Jay wrote, “and Mercy dormant, a harsh System repugnant to my Feelings, but nevertheless necessary.” He also ran a Hudson Valley spy ring, whose adventures he later recounted to a young family friend, James Fenimore Cooper, who turned them into his first bestseller, The Spy.

Later in the war, Jay served as a diplomat in Spain and France. There he learned that allies can be as bad as enemies. When it came time to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, he encouraged Britain to give the United States a good deal, to keep it independent of France. Treaties, he explained, “had never signified any thing since the World began.” The former colonies and former mother country should base a new relationship on common interest.

He directed the same clear gaze on the lacrimae rerum. The letter he wrote Hamilton’s father-in-law after his friend was shot is saved from bitterness only by grace. “The philosophic topics of consolation are familiar to you, and we all know from experience how little relief is to be derived from them. May the Author and only Giver of consolation be and remain with you.”

The pictures in Magnet’s book are splendid, 32 pages in full color. Read about these houses, and their owners — you will find a mix of men who did their country proud.

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